Select language, opens an overlay
The Nickel Boys

The Nickel Boys

Book - 2019 | First edition
Average Rating:
Rate this:
In this bravura follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize, and National Book Award-winning The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead brilliantly dramatizes another strand of American history through the story of two boys sentenced to a hellish reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida. As the Civil Rights movement begins to reach the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood Curtis takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to heart: He is "as good as anyone." Abandoned by his parents, but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But for a black boy in the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy the future. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, whose mission statement says it provides "physical, intellectual and moral training" so the delinquent boys in their charge can become "honorable and honest men." In reality, the Nickel Academy is a grotesque chamber of horrors where the sadistic staff beats and sexually abuses the students, corrupt officials and locals steal food and supplies, and any boy who resists is likely to disappear "out back." Stunned to find himself in such a vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold onto Dr. King's ringing assertion "Throw us in jail and we will still love you." His friend Turner thinks Elwood is worse than naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble. The tension between Elwood's ideals and Turner's skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades. Formed in the crucible of the evils Jim Crow wrought, the boys' fates will be determined by what they endured at the Nickel Academy.
Publisher: New York : Doubleday, [2019]
Edition: First edition
Copyright Date: ©2019
ISBN: 9780385537070
Branch Call Number: F WHITE-C
Characteristics: 213 pages ; 22 cm


Featured Blogs and Events

LibraryReads July 2019

Nothing says “must read” quite like a Librarian’s stamp of approval! Every month releases the top picks for the month, as voted on by Librarians across the country. Subscribe to Tacoma Library’s e-Newsletter service and get the Library Reads picks and more delivered straight to your inbox. Check out the LibraryReads’ picks for July 2019: The Bookish Life of Nina Hill The Book C... (more)

From the critics

Community Activity


Add a Comment
JCLCherylMY Apr 28, 2021

You know a book's good when you think about it days after you finish it. This novel is one of those books. Although it's a fictional account of a boys reform school in segregated Florida in 1963, it depicts the real life horrors of what the real "nickel boys" had to endure. Heartbreaking.

Apr 11, 2021

Who are these people who can treat children with such cruelty and brutality? A devastating account based on an actual prison for children.

Mar 13, 2021

This is the second book I have read by Colson Whitehead- I have enjoyed both. The Nickel Boys is a work of fiction that depicts a horrific part of history. I was mortified that I did not know about the history of the Dozier School until now.

I believe if you like historical fiction you will enjoy this book, however, be warned its not a 'feel good' story.

Mar 08, 2021

Once again, author Colson Whitehead demonstrates his exceptional storytelling skills with the book THE NICKEL BOYS. This historic fiction is mostly set in a notorious boys’ reform school, Nickel Academy, in Jim Crow-era Florida. The character-driven story follows 2 friends, the academic idealist Elwood and the street-smart cynic Turner. Their experiences with institutional neglect, cruelty, and racism at Nickel have long-lasting impacts on their lives. Inspired by real events at the Dozier School for Boys in Florida, THE NICKEL BOYS is deeply moving, disturbing, surprising, and timely. Its powerful message will stay with readers long after they finish the book.

Feb 21, 2021

I was highly moved by this story. In particular, I was sickened, yet again by how so many took advantage of that racist system for their own benefit and how they were able to crush dissent. The main character is painted as a talented idealist--exactly the type among those oppressed to be destroyed.

Feb 21, 2021

This was chilling for me to read because I lived for almost a year in the town of Marianna, FL and for a short time my (then) brother-in-law worked at the Dozier Boys School, the place upon which this heartbreaking novel is based. His position was as a "sports counselor" which consisted of playing sports with the boys living there. This would have been about 1974. To my knowledge, he never witnessed anything, or at least never said anything. Chilling to think some of those awful things were happening at that time and we never knew about it. Makes me weep.

Jan 10, 2021

This excellent short novel becomes almost uninvolving when it reaches its dramatic climax, considering the dramatic subject matter, although never for a moment does it come close to becoming boring (as another reviewer affirms).
Based on history about the treatment of black boys in a US reformatory school during the early 20th century, it's written by one of the finest writers I've come across in a long while. Whitehead has a keen eye for the telling detail, and the skill to convey incidents and things with artful simplicity.
Such as about a grandmother who's "...shocked, as if someone had tossed hot soup in her lap."
He describes prison-like rooms where there are "...fuzzy haloes of finger grime around every cabinet latch and doorknob." The protagonist in this reform school, "...heard stories of home and distant cronies, juvenile conjectures about how the world worked and ...naïve plans to outwit it." It was populated by such guards as one "man of secret menace who stored up violence like a battery."
A short, powerful book.
I look forward to reading more from Whitehead.

Dec 29, 2020

This is one of those books that make me feel almost apologetic for not enjoying them. The subject matter of The Nickel Boys is, without a doubt, a harrowing, shameful aspect of American history (or even its present.) What Elwood and the countless other boys face at the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory, is downright outrageous and tragic. Yet, I found myself unable to truly emotionally connect with the characters or the story, perhaps due to the author's style of prose. To be brutally honest, I admit that I felt somewhat bored during some parts. Perhaps if the author had delved into the more emotional aspect of storytelling, then The Nickel Boys might have been more enjoyable for me.
Despite this, I did appreciate the twist in the end, the contrasting personalities of Elwood and Turner, and most notably, the exposure of a seldom-discussed area of American injustice and tragedy.

Nov 04, 2020

A good true story. The ending was a surprise. The lives of black boys put into detention is very sad and explains some of the feelings of black lives matter.

Oct 28, 2020

Definitely worth reading (or listening to).
This short and powerful book does a great job giving the reader an idea of the violence suffered at the "school", while not going into too much detail.

View All Comments


Add a Quote
Mar 08, 2021

“All those lost geniuses…they had been denied even the simple pleasure of being ordinary. Hobbled and handicapped before the race even began, never figuring out how to be normal.” - p. 166

Mar 08, 2021

“To think of those Nickel nights where the only sounds were tears and insects, how you could sleep in a room crammed with sixty boys and still understand that you were the only person on earth.” - p. 160

Mar 08, 2021

“We must believe in our souls that we are somebody, that we are significant, that we are worthful, and we must walk the streets of life every day with this sense of dignity and this sense of somebody-ness.” — Martin Luther KIng, Jr. - pp. 26-27; p.181

Mar 08, 2021

“Even in death, the boys were trouble.” - p. 3

Sep 16, 2020

“He had to trust a stranger to do the right thing. It was impossible, like loving the one who wanted to destroy you, but that was the message of the movement: to trust in the ultimate decency that lived in every human heart.”

Sep 16, 2020

“To forbid the thought of escape, even that slightest butterfly thought of escape, was to murder one’s humanity.”

ArapahoeStaff26 Sep 19, 2019

The more routine his days, the more unruly his nights. He woke after midnight, when the dormitory was dead, starting at imagined sounds -- footsteps at the threshold, leather slapping the ceiling. He squinted at the darkness--nothing. Then he was up for hours, in a spell, agitated by rickety thoughts and weakened by an ebbing of the spirit....In keeping his head down in his careful navigation so that he made it to lights-out without mishap, he fooled himself that he had prevailed. That he had outwitted Nickel because he got along and kept out of trouble. In fact he had been ruined. He was like one of those Negroes Dr. King spoke of in his letter from jail, so complacent and sleepy after years of oppression that they had adjusted to it and learned to sleep in it as their only bed. pg. 156


Add a Summary
Dec 27, 2020

In this bravura follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning #1 New York Times bestseller The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead brilliantly dramatizes another strand of American history through the story of two boys sentenced to a hellish reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida.

Dec 30, 2019

The novel opens in the early 1960s. Elwood Curtis in an African-American boy growing up in Tallahassee, Florida. He is being raised by his grandmother since his parents moved to another state when Elwood was six years old. Elwood is cognizant of racial tensions and divisions in America, and he becomes even more aware of them after his grandmother buys him a record of Martin Luther King speeches. Elwood begins attending civil rights protests in his teenage years. Elwood is studious and hard-working, and he aspires to attend college. One day, when Elwood is about sixteen years old, he is unjustly targeted by a white police officer. The officer falsely charges Elwood with stealing a car. Elwood is convicted and sentenced to attend Nickel Reformatory School for a year. Nickel is an all-boys reform school that is segregated by race.

After Elwood arrives at the school, he is dismayed to see that the class offerings are virtually nonexistent. The students are forced to spend most of their time performing unpaid labor that generates profit for the school and the state. Elwood also soon learns that the staff often beat students, which is illegal, and they sometimes even kill students. Early in Elwood’s time at Nickel, the staff beat Elwood quite severely after he tries to protect a student who is being bullied. Elwood befriends another black student there, who is named Jack Turner (but he is simply called Turner by other people.) Elwood tries to shorten his time at Nickel by being docile and subservient, but the staff seem to administer punishments almost at random.

One day, the school holds its annual boxing match, in which a black student must box against a white student. This year, black boxer is a boy named Griff, who is strong, unintelligent, and who often bullies others. The school superintendent, Maynard Spencer, privately tells Griff to lose the match on purpose. However, Griff wins the match when he accidentally knocks out the other boxer. The black students are excited by Griff’s victory. At the order of Superintendent Spencer, some of the staff members take Griff behind the school and kill him. One day, when state inspectors arrive at Nickel, Elwood writes a report of what he has witnessed and experienced at Nickel. Turner helps Elwood covertly give the report to the state inspectors. However, the state takes no action against the school.

In retaliation for the report, Spencer and the school staff plan to kill Elwood. Elwood and Turner decide to try to escape together. Turner successfully escapes, but staff members catch up with Elwood and shoot him to death. Turner adopts Elwood’s name as a way of honoring him. Turner eventually moves to New York City and establishes a moving company there. He does not talk about his time at Nickel, and he attempts to simply repress those memories. However, he suffers persistent emotional trauma. Eventually, in the 2010s, archaeologists discover human remains on the grounds of the now defunct Nickel school. The remains have evidential marks of the violence suffered by the students. As the truth about Nickel begins to become public, Turner decides to finally speak publicly about the things he experienced while at Nickel.


Add Age Suitability
Sep 16, 2020

kaitoryn thinks this title is suitable for 13 years and over


Add Notices

There are no notices for this title yet.

Explore Further

Browse by Call Number


Subject Headings


Find it at TPL

To Top